Friday, June 29, 2012
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Writer: Guillermo Arriaga
Photography: Rodrigo Prieto
Music: Gustavo Santaolalla
Editors: Luis Carballar, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Fernando Perez Unda
Cast: Emilio Echevarría, Gael García Bernal, Goya Toledo, Álvaro Guerrero, Vanessa Bauche, Jorge Salinas, Marco Pérez, Rodrigo Murray, Humberto Busto
Amores Perros is a picture overflowing, by design, with dogs—mean dogs, righteous dogs, killer dogs, foo-foo dogs, dogs that run in packs. Even the title, which is translated in the subtitles as "life's a bitch," makes the element explicit and incidentally gives away the theme plain. As downbeat as it is dazzling—you do not come away from this with a glow, but you are likely to be impressed—it mixes up three stories of six people, each pair unaware of the other two, all equally involved in sin on the level of flouting the 10 Commandments—adultery, covetousness, murder, and so on. It all adds up to a shaggy dog story (pun probably not intended), which sprawls untidily across the screen in great bolts and washes of energy, riveting from start to finish.
It opens plunged in media res into circumstances leading up to the central event of the picture, which serves (imperfectly) as the unifying point around which everything else revolves: an auto accident that kills one, injures another, and enables one of the most supernaturally unsettling dogs on film, a creature named Cofi, to escape and live another day. If the overall structure is a bit rickety, and it is, with peculiar narrative lacunae and a way of moving from scene to scene that is not graceful or elegant, but rather base and urgent—yet at the same time often quite beautiful—it somehow manages to cohere into something very big, its various parts distorting and swelling up and force-fitting themselves to one another to make it work.
It's a first film for director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who has since made 21 Grams, Babel, and Biutiful, and in many ways that shows, with so much going on it's a wonder it's been wrestled into as much shape as he has (it does not surprise me that three editors worked on this, including Inarritu). The ambition of it is almost breathtaking, wrapping its arms around the ways that humans and dogs interact and feeling for the profundities therein.
Dog fighting, and the portrayals of animal abuse generally, are somewhat suspect, a little too easy. It's dangerously close to descending into mere manipulative device, designed to provoke—and there's a case to be made it is exactly that, transcending nothing. It's true there are exploitational aspects to the dog fighting—it's hard to take one's eyes away when it is on screen, as much as one may want—yet the dogs are carefully cultivated as potent, complex symbols of human spirit and frailty alike, and in the end it all comes out better than a wash. As hard as parts of this are to watch, the brutalities do work, on the levels intended and in spite of the somewhat distracting razzle-dazzle.
And make no mistake, there is virtually no end of razzle-dazzle here. The camera is constantly in motion and probing, occasionally stopping to consider some odd element before hurrying on to the next bend in the narrative. The soundtrack periodically reaches in and kicks the action up to a higher gear, affording visceral pleasures. The stories are allusive and weird and disturbing by turns—a younger brother lusts for his older brother's wife, a man leaves his wife for a beautiful model and then must take care of her when her health suddenly spirals for the worse, a former guerrilla revolutionary now living hand to mouth and working as a hitman confronts the gap between then and now, between his morals and his will to survive.
A part of me wants to say the narrative doesn't work at all, particularly in the way it advances the other two stories during any single one. Characters from the other stories wander randomly across the frames, or appear lingering in a background, interrupting one story briefly to move another forward. It feels stitched together and iterative, and a little clumsy at some points. I want to say it doesn't work, but it does, at least insofar as it's virtually impossible to stop watching it in stupefied fascination all across its imposing two-and-a-half-hour length. In the end, it feels more prudent simply to set aside the vexing question of "works." I look at it, I want to look at it again, there is always more there to see—that's working enough for me.
Then there are the performances, as unruly as everything else here, and utterly compelling. Gael Garcia Bernal, who went on to appear in the impressive Y tu mama tambien a year or two later, is fine as Octavio, who seduces his brother's wife, makes money hand over fist fighting Cofi, and drives one of the cars involved in the accident. He modulates between sympathetic and creepy, managing that balance expertly—even at his most creepy he is sympathetic, even at his most sympathetic you wouldn't necessarily want him in your life. Goya Toledo is nearly as good as the spoiled model attempting to recover from her injuries in the accident, with her nauseating and constant making over her dog Richie, who eventually disappears into a hole in the floor of her apartment.
The best story is the third, involving the hitman on one of his jobs, and with any number of strange twists and turns. While the first two stories take somewhat familiar narrative arcs, this one is constantly surprising—his response to the accident, which he is standing near when it happens, the background details about him that emerge, the approach he takes to his current job, and very nearly Cofi's final chapter more than once. It's remarkably difficult to outguess, which means sitting back and letting it wash over you simply becomes the best strategy for understanding. In many ways that applies to the whole film, bursting with energy and surprises.
Top 10 of 2000
I like You Can Count on Me nearly as much as Amores Perros—more, on many days. After that there's a little gap. I wanted to see Dancer in the Dark again before finalizing this list but time got away from me. The relatively high position is artifact of how I remember it affecting me, much less so the lower regard in which I currently hold von Trier. Hey, he caught a break! This was a pretty good year for movies I think, and besides those listed below some others that came close or could come close in future revisions include Yi Yi, The Gleaners and I, and Bring it On. Onward to the 20th century.
1. Amores Perros
2. You Can Count on Me
3. Dancer in the Dark
5. Requiem for a Dream
6. The Eyes of Tammy Faye
7. In the Mood for Love
8. Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport
9. Wonder Boys
10. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Didn't like so much: Before Night Falls; Chocolat; Dr. T and the Women; Gladiator; Mission: Impossible II
Gaps: Bamboozled, Battle Royale, The House of Mirth, Mission to Mars, Together